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Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Purdue

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Four down, eight to go.

After digging themselves into an improbable 0-2 hole, the Irish are ready to push their way above .500, a long slog back after two really disheartening losses. They’ll have their chance to do it in primetime Saturday night, with the Irish and Boilermakers kicking off at Rose-Ade Stadium at 8:00 p.m. ET. (You can join me, as always, for a very spirited live-blog.)

With losses on consecutive Saturdays to open the season, the Irish faced traditional opponents Michigan State and Pittsburgh, two teams that Notre Dame has struggled with in recent years. That the Irish dispatched the Spartans handily and escaped Pittsburgh with a win was everything the Irish needed to do to get their season back on pace. Yet as only Irish fans can do, a very vocal contingent has turned more negative about the season than they were after dropping the first two games of the year.

After two weeks of offensive regression, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have a chance to go put together a solid performance. They’ll need to do it in front of 60,000 fans and a primetime ESPN audience. Entering the second act of the season, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftover and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Purdue at 8:00 p.m. ET.

1. Offenses beware: Running against the Irish is no easy feat.

In retrospect, the Irish’s performance against Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham already looks much better than it did last Saturday. The Irish defense held Graham to 89 yards on 21 carries, letting Graham loose for a 42-yard scamper, his longest play from scrimmage on the year. Even with that run, Notre Dame held Graham to his lowest output on the season, just days before he was unleashed against South Florida on Thursday night, running for 226 yards on 26 carries.

After four games, the Irish shutting down impressive running games is starting to become a trend.

Thanks to the Irish Sports Information Department, here are the Irish four previous opponents, how they’ve run the ball against the Irish, and how they’ve done against everybody else:

USF                                              Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                     Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                           Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue head coach Danny Hope understands the Irish will be the best challenge his upstart running game will face.

“They’re good against the run. They can shut your run game down,” Hope said of the Irish defense. “Most of their opponents this season have struggled to manufacture any sort of run game. When that happens, you become somewhat one-dimensional and that plays into their hands.”

We’ll see how Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers do against a stingy Irish defense. It’ll likely tell the story of the Boilermakers offense.

2. Brian Kelly has made it clear just how important this game is… to Purdue.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t a guy that puts his foot in his mouth too often. But there’s one thing he’s done consistently this week that’s been a bit of a head scratcher: He’s continued to call this weekend’s game Purdue’s Super Bowl.

“This is their Super Bowl. This is the biggest game on their schedule by far,” Kelly said earlier in the week, and continues to echo this line of thought. “There’s no question about it. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

It’s true that the Notre Dame is usually one of Purdue’s most important games on the season, but something about an opponent’s coach naming  your team’s Super Bowl strikes me as a little strange. But backing up the truck, maybe it’s a case of Kelly playing some motivational games with his own team.

If there’s a common theme Kelly is hitting on with his team, it’s that Purdue is a team that’s going to be on a mission. They’re hosting a large recruiting weekend, turning Saturday into a Gold & Black game, and are on the verge of pulling off a sell out crowd. Combine all of that, and there’s little doubt that Danny Hope’s squad comes ready to play.

(That said, if Kelly’s just taking a dig at Jim Delany‘s B1G conference and its merry band of cupcakes on the schedule, I’d probably get a chuckle out of that, too.)

Realistically, we’ve got no clue what kind of team we’ll be seeing on Saturday night. They snuck by one directional state school and thumped another one, and sandwiched those games between losing to one of the worst teams in D-I football. Then again Pitt gave up seven sacks to Maine and only beat the Black Bears by six before absolutely killing USF Thursday night.

The message? Frankly, I have no idea.

3. Purdue is confident sophomore Ricardo Allen might have some answers for Michael Floyd.

If Purdue was looking for the blueprint to slow down Michael Floyd, they may have gotten a peak last weekend against Pitt. But Purdue also has a weapon of its own, sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen, who walked onto campus last year for Hope and became one of the team’s best defenders. Good news for Boilermaker fans? He’s still getting better and better.

“I think Ricardo has really progressed from this point in time last year,” Hope said. “It’s hard to tell because a lot of people are not throwing his way and running the ball. Maybe just the stats and his numbers don’t jump out at you quite like they did this time last year. I think he’s really improved from where he was at this time last year as far as we can tell because he has not been tested. Saturday, he’ll be matched up on one of them.”

That “one of them” is Michael Floyd. How the Boilermakers decide to help Floyd should determine how big of a difference Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick or TJ Jones make.

“Obviously, if they have two or three guys looking at you all the time, there’s obviously got to be someone open,” Floyd said Wednesday. “We’re trying to get the guy open. I’m trying to do as much as I can to make sure to put [Tommy Rees] in the most comfortable spot as possible.”

Allen will likely stay on the field side of the formation while fellow cornerback Josh Johnson covers the short side. Whether or not the corners switch sides to keep an eye on Floyd, it’s clear Purdue’s secondary knows the Irish receivers present a challenge.

“We feel comfortable with those two guys and we don’t have to run around and match up,” Purdue DB coach Lou Anarumo said. “They have three good receivers. Michael Floyd is a great player but the other three — two wide receivers and the tight end — they’re very good players.

“We’re going to be conscious of where (Floyd) is every snap but we’ll be aware of the other guys that can beat you too.”

If I had to guess, expect to see the Irish try and jump start Riddick with some easy completions.

4. Credit Kelly and company for some nice work with halftime adjustments.

If you were surprised by Pitt scoring on their first possession of the third quarter, it’s because it just hasn’t happened all that much for the Irish. Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com crunched the numbers, just to show how impressive the Irish have been after making their halftime adjustments.

Notre Dame has pitched a shutout in six of the last nine third quarters, surrendering a mere 23 points.

Only Pittsburgh last week has put together a sustained scoring drive in the third quarter against the Irish in their last nine games, and that required a roughing the punter penalty to keep the drive alive.

“That’s what we’re trying to build here,” said Brian Kelly Wednesday when asked about Notre Dame’s recent third-quarter prowess. “We knew that our success was going to be linked toward building a defensive philosophy and a mentality and a way we play.”

Notre Dame’s third-quarter numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Tulsa’s seven third-quarter points last season came on a 59-yard punt return while USC’s 10 third-quarter points came on a field goal that capped a seven-play, 25-yard drive and a four-play, two-yard “touchdown drive’ following a Tommy Rees fumble.

Over the last nine games, Notre Dame has out-scored its opponents in the third quarter, 59-23. Over the last eight games, Notre Dame has a 51-16 advantage.

In five of those nine third quarters, the Irish have surrendered 59 yards or less. Only Michigan has gained more than 100 yards in the third quarter (137), thanks in large part to a 77-yard pass completion (that eventually led to a fourth-quarter score).

Even Pittsburgh didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in the third quarter against the Irish last week, despite a 19-play, 80-yard drive. The Panthers’ other drive in the third quarter netted a minus-eight yards.

There will still be complaints about the Irish’s defensive coaching until Gary Gray starts winning some one-on-one deep balls and Bob Diaco‘s troops slow down Air Force and Navy, two games that should be absolutely intriguing from a Xs and Os point of view.

One thing is certain though, Diaco’s continual preaching of the fundamentals has helped turn this defensive unit into a BCS caliber group.

5. The trip to West Lafayette is a return home for new Irish trainer Rob Hunt.

If you’re looking for one of the most under-reported stories of the offseason, it was Brian Kelly bringing in Oklahoma State trainer Rob Hunt, completing a major overhaul of the medical and training staffs that oversee the football program. Hunt’s work with the Irish has already helped the team, with the Irish staying relatively healthy through four physical games on the schedule.

Hunt’s career has seen him zig-zag from Ball State to Missouri to Southeast Missouri to Oklahoma State. But the chance to return to his home state of Indiana was just too good to pass up.

Sam King in the Lafayette Journal & Courier has more about the West Lafayette native:

A return to Indiana was welcome for Hunt and his wife, Krista, also a 1993 West Lafayette graduate.

After never being closer than six hours from West Lafayette, moving to South Bend has offered plenty of family time in the last six months.

It also gave Hunt the opportunity to work with one of the most storied college football programs.

“Certainly all of us have dreams to be at the pinnacle, at the best of your profession,” Hunt said. “I prided myself on doing a good job no matter where I’ve been. I didn’t know where it would take me.

“The tradition here is unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe. It’s been a great six months for me to this point. We’re looking forward to many years here supporting this football program and coaching staff.”

Kelly, Notre Dame’s second-year head coach, is equally as happy to have Hunt.

Upon hiring Hunt, Kelly was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “We think we got the best in the country.”

Last season, it seemed like just about every non-lineman on the team was battling hamstring problems at one point or another, with the Irish losing a ton of critical minutes with correctable injuries like muscle pulls. Right now, only Danny Spond has missed any time from a hamstring injury, with the only other major injury being fifth-year tight end Mike Ragone’s torn ACL.

Hunt comes from a large family of Purdue graduates and fans, making the weekend back home even more special.

“We’ve watched a bunch of Purdue games in that stadium,” Hunt to the J&C. “It’s going to be a little different standing on that sideline as a member of the opposing team.”

6. It’s time for Tommy Rees to start building some confidence… as three quarterbacks are waiting.

If the Irish are going to get to the places they want to this season, they’ll need Tommy Rees to start developing some confidence. While Kelly has done his best to shield his young quarterback, the sophomore knows he’s got to play better.

“I think the whole being a sophomore thing isn’t really that relevant anymore,” Rees said. “I need to improve how I’m playing and keep getting better. It can’t be a matter of age or experience. I think I can be the quarterback for this football team and I think I need to be learning by my mistakes and playing up to my capabilities.”

There has been enough debate this week about Irish quarterbacks to last an entire offseason. But if Rees is going to continue to pilot this offense, he’ll need to take big strides against Purdue and Air Force, two defenses that shouldn’t stack up all that well against the Irish’s explosive and balanced attack.

Kelly has made it clear that he’s still supporting Rees as his starting quarterback, but you’ve got to think the head coach would also love winning one of the next two games comfortably so he’s able to give Dayne Crist another chance to play, only this time in a low-leverage situation.

Kelly talked about keeping all four of his quarterbacks ready to go, even when it’s been Rees that’s taken every snap since halftime against South Florida.

“First of all the quarterback situation is such that the No. 2 knows he has to be ready,” Kelly said after Thursday’s practice. “So he’s doing his work because he knows he’s one snap away from being in there, so you never worry about two in that sense.

“I try to spend more attention and time with three and four. That’s why we’ve had them both stay with us and be part of meetings and game planning as well as go over there and get some work. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time with the threes and fours in keeping them engaged and learning our offense. I meet with them individually as well to just make sure that they’ve got a good base.”

That Kelly himself spends time with the third and fourth sting quarterback is just an amazing contrast from what Charlie Weis used to do with his quarterbacks. But it also helps explain why he’s kept so much harmony in a really difficult quarterbacking situation, where a roster imbalance meant bringing in multiple kids bunched together, something that makes depth chart continuity tough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.